An underground movement to deploy free wireless access zones in metropolitan areas is taking hold. If it turns out to be successful, wireless network operators may be fighting against a grounds-up movement that could undermine their multibillion-dollar campaign to offer next-generation 3G (third-generation) wireless services in major metro areas.
The movement, called by some the "parasitic grid" and by others more simply the "free metro wireless data network," has already installed itself in New York; San Francisco; Seattle; Aspen, Colo., Portland, Ore., British Columbia; and London.
"If you have enough of these in place and spread out effectively, you have created what is referred to as a parasitic grid: multiple wireless-served areas. If you have enough you would have connectivity nationally," said J. R. Bibb, a technology advisor to Shell Oil Co. in Houston. Bibb was offering his own opinion as a technologist and was not speaking for Shell Oil.
What it is all about is the use of a technology called 802.11b, a standard for wireless Ethernet that works on an unlicensed portion of the wireless spectrum. At a performance of 11Mb per second, it is in fact five times faster than the best speeds promised by all the major wireless network operators for 3G services.
"The major goal is to build up the 802.11b infrastructure inside the city. If you have a home that is connected to the Internet, for example, I use your connection and you can use mine," said Matt Westervelt, one of the originators of what he likes to call a "symbiotic grid" rather than a parasitic one.
Westervelt talks about a network of volunteers deploying, at their own expense, a wireless access point on the outside of their home, or at worst at a window, with the access point connected to the volunteer's PC.
The access point, as the name implies, gives users within range of any one of these access points who have a wireless LAN card in their mobile device a connection to any other device or node on the same LAN.
Once a more or less complete grid of access points are put up around a city, grid participants could connect into the LAN to access numerous services, including a free alternative to fee-based cellular networks. Voice services over 802.11b are typically referred to as VoIP (voice over IP).
Other services envisioned include information distribution for city services, free e-mail for all citizens, and, for a budget-strapped city government, inexpensive access to Internet terminals in public places such as libraries.
"Presumably these free metro wireless access could help to erase the digital divide," said Scott Kennedy, one of nine candidates for mayor for the city of Seattle and owner of the BitStar Café in the city.
The concept is based around community-minded volunteers, who would, for example give anyone within range of their access point, about 300 feet in all directions, a connection to the Internet using the volunteer's ISP.
"Internet access will be the primary mover for these free networks. Sharing a cable modem or a DSL line might annoy some folks [broadband providers], but it's probably legal," said Phil Belanger, vice president of wireless business development at Wayport Inc. in Austin, Texas, a for-profit provider of 802.11b services at airports and hotels.
Belanger sees the free metro access movement as a good thing for wireless in general.
"There will always be venues where it is free and venues where you get dinged for it, and that is where WayPort will play," Belanger said.
"I like the idea of citizens creating a bottom-up approach. The network is owned by the users. The idea is there and the talent is there. This is a story about wireless technology that cannot be ignored. It is like Linux. It is not going away," Kennedy said.
Contributing to its mass appeal are the low-cost solutions available. For less than US$100, a volunteer can buy an access point, and Kennedy says he uses a Pringles potato chip can in his coffee shop to enhance network performance. Performance degrades the farther away from an access point a user is located.
"Since I put in the Pringles can, I get a really strong signal," Kennedy said.
No doubt, says an antenna specialist at AT&T Labs.
"Imagine the Pringles can is a telescope and you are looking through it. You put a stub of wire poking in the middle of the can. The aluminum foil on the inside lining of the Pringles can acts like a wave guide. Put some pieces of metal inside, and for pennies you have a high-gain antenna. It magnifies the signal along the line of site from the Pringles [can] to the access point," said Bruce McNair, a technology consultant at AT&T Labs in Murray Hill, N.J.
On the West Coast, the movement started in Seattle Capitol Hill neighborhood, which already had a large concentration of technically oriented residents, according to one of its founders, Matt Westervelt.
"It started as a community thing -- a network designed on the idea that you trust your neighbor to route your network and they trust you. It says a lot about your neighbors. I am going to point my antenna, and we can exchange traffic," he said.
The main goal, according to Westervelt, is no transit fees for Seattle.
"We are building a transit-free network," he said.
Another benefit that Westervelt sees is for small businesses. Anybody can put up a server on the community network and put a shopping cart on it, and it doesn't cost you several thousand dollars. Even small businesses that want to employ at-home workers can use the network as a low-cost telecommuter solution.
Kennedy says it is hard to predict where these free networks will go, but one thing is certain: They are not going unnoticed by the giant wireless network operators.
"We are aware of the free services springing up and are considering 802.11b wireless access as well, not in place of currently scheduled rollouts but as an adjunct," said an AT&T Wireless spokesperson. Other major infrastructure providers to the wireless rollout in public places, such as at airports and hotels, are also poised to connect together metropolitan areas around the country.
There are these "aggregators," points out Wayport's Belanger, "still in stealth mode" who will take these public access networks and connect them all together.
The aggregators have designed software that resides in the mobile device and can find any available network and connect the user to it. It identifies all the access points in range.
"It even would be able to say, 'Here is a list of the networks found' and indicate which are free and which charge a fee," Belanger said.
"It would let the user decide which one they want to connect to," Belanger said.
The movement started by people such as Westervelt and used by early adopters such as café owner and mayoral candidate Kennedy certainly has a 1960s ring to it. Belanger said some call it the "hippie" network.
Certainly there is a lot of strong feeling that may carry the "parasitic grid" far beyond what the giant wireless providers may think of now as a minor annoyance into a full-fledged competitor to its own services.
"The idea is that we can be what we want it to be instead of what they want it to be. I want to be a part of this. I don't want to be a reason why it doesn't happen," Kennedy said.